Sea Change in the High North
Scientists track seabirds in Alaska’s changing seascape
It was a woman walking her dog on the beach near Seward late in the summer of 2015 who first noticed it: dead seabirds, mostly Common Murres, washing up on the shingle.
Similar reports began coming in from various locales around the Gulf of Alaska, and by December the number of incidents was “off the charts,” says Robb Kaler, the Alaska Seabird Die-off Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tens of thousands of dead birds were confirmed — common murres mostly, but other species as well, including Thick-billed Murres, Tufted Puffins and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
Seabird die-offs have been recorded sporadically in Alaska over the years, but the magnitude and scope of the Gulf of Alaska die-off event made it extraordinary. And 2015 didn’t mark the end of the crisis. Similar die-offs occurred in the Gulf of Alaska in 2016, and in the Bering and Chukchi Seas in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with the list of impacted species expanding to Short-tailed Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Crested Auklets and Horned Puffins.
Even worse, about half of the stricken birds were breeding-age adults. Conditions that led to these die-offs thus ultimately had a negative impact on breeding success for many species — particularly murres, which breed in vast colonies numbering in the thousands to tens of thousands.
The primary culprit: starvation
So what was the cause? Several factors could be involved, including disease or poisoning from toxic algae. But the primary direct culprit was starvation, says Robb,
“Seabirds typically are voracious feeders, especially during the breeding season,” Robb says. “Common murres, for example, consume about 30% of their body mass daily, which is about 90–300 fish per day. And they weren’t getting the food they needed. During the fall and winter/spring, they’re typically over the continental shelf, feeding on krill and fish. But in 2015 and 2016, we found that virtually all the dead birds had empty stomachs. Birders in Seward reported murres flying north toward the interior at the time they should’ve been offshore feeding over the continental shelf. Then we had reports of them feeding in interior rivers and lakes. There was even a report of a murre on the Christmas bird count from Fairbanks. It was unprecedented.”
The die-offs in the Gulf of Alaska were associated with the Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave, which researchers soon dubbed “The Blob.” This phenomenon created a patch of warmer-than-usual water in the North Pacific roughly 1,000 miles long, 1,000 miles wide and 300 feet deep; surface temperatures spiked to 4 degrees C above average. The warming trend began in 2013 and lasted 3.5 years, which coincided with a strong El Nino in 2015–2016. The marine ecosystem in the Gulf of Alaska underwent profound changes. In subsequent years, studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and various universities also documented major changes to the marine ecosystems in the northern Bering and Chukchi seas, with record low sea ice extent and warming ocean temperatures.
“For one thing, it diminished the winds that drive upwelling, which is the transport of cold, nutrient rich waters from deeper areas to shallower, nearshore areas,” says Robb. “All that mixing of nutrients feeds phytoplankton blooms, which feed zooplankton and in turn sustain the fish that seabirds eat. There just wasn’t as much food for them out there.”
Further diminishing the seabird food supply in the Bering and Chukchi seas was the breakdown of the “Cold Pool,” a large pool of cold water near the ocean floor that forms a thermal barrier to many species in the Bering Sea. Waters north of the Cold Pool support organisms such as Arctic cod and capelin that prefer cold water; south of the Pool, warmer-water creatures hold sway.
When the Cold Pool broke down, distribution of southern Bering Sea species, like Pacific cod and walleye Pollock changed. It was really extraordinary. NOAA studies showed that, compared to estimates of fish biomass from 2010 to 2017 — when for the first time in 37 years of surveys no cold water barrier was found — pollock increased by 600 times, and the increase in cod biomass was on the order of 90 times.
Both cod and pollock are voracious fish predators, potentially increasing competition for food with other marine mammals and birds; further, the increase in water temperature upped their metabolism, encouraging them to increase food intake. The large fish thus may have further reduced the availability of forage fish and krill for seabirds.
The specter of future die-offs is further heightened by the steady diminishment of the Arctic ice pack due to climate change. As with upwelling, sea ice serves as a driver of marine productivity; as it diminishes, so do forage species and everything that depends on them. “We know these warm water events are reducing food and in some cases increasing the frequency of harmful algal blooms,” Robb says, “but we have more questions than answers at this point. Is the problem mainly due to a lack of food, or are disease and exposure to biotoxins also contributing? We just need to push forward with our partners in other federal agencies, the state, local communities and tribal partners to determine precise causes, and what — if anything — we can do about it.”
The die-offs are a primary concern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Alaska’s Seabird Section, but the team’s purview is broad and encompasses a wide range of missions.
“Since 2006, we’ve been conducting offshore surveys in collaboration with agencies like NOAA under programs sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, North Pacific Research Board, National Science Foundation, and others” says Seabird Section Lead Kathy Kuletz. “Our surveys are the seabird component for multiple programs and ecosystem projects and we typically log about 20,000 kilometers a year at sea through these programs alone.”
The team’s work contributes to multidisciplinary ecosystem studies that gauge the rate of change now occurring in the far northern reaches of the planet. The Arctic is experiencing climate change-induced ecological shifts far more rapidly than lower-latitude regions. In response, the agency’s seabird researchers are attempting to identify the impacts to specific species and determine if mitigating measures can be taken.
“A lot of people don’t realize the United States is an Arctic Country; Alaska makes us an Arctic Country,” says Kathy. “As a consequence, we’re partners in the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), which is an international organization that monitors the Arctic and develops conservation plans for vulnerable ecosystems and species. I’m in the Circumpolar Seabird Group of CAFF, and it’s immensely helpful to compare notes with researchers from other circumpolar nations. It lets everyone get out of their national boxes and understand the bigger picture.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists also coordinate with other federal and state agencies on rapid oil spill response, and work to reduce seabird “bycatch” — birds unintentionally killed during commercial fishing operations.
“For example, there was a potential problem with Short-tailed Albatross and the longline fishery,” says Kathy, “because they’re listed as an endangered species. It was this endangered status that catalyzed the move to reduce seabird bycatch in this fishery. They’re really large, magnificent birds that nest in Japan and fly to Alaska to forage when not breeding [read more about albatross here]. USFWS worked with other agencies and industry folks, who put a lot of effort into identifying remedies, and finally developed a system that uses streamer lines that prevents the birds from getting to the hooks. It worked very well in reducing mortality — not just for albatrosses, but for fulmars, gulls and shearwaters.”
Seabirds being seabirds, the Seabird Section’s researchers necessarily spend a great deal of time cruising Alaska’s offshore waters while conducting surveys. Given the often-heavy seas, it’s not a job for anyone disposed to motion sickness. But like her peers, Elizabeth “Liz” Labunski, a wildlife biologist and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Alaska Seabird Section researcher, has the requisite strong stomach — and a driving desire to pursue the work.
“Everything considered, I’d rather be on the water,” Liz says. “After I get back from a three-to-six week trip and I spend a week on land, I’m ready to go out again. I always have my bag packed.”
There is a forced intimacy on any vessel, Liz acknowledges, but the character of her shipmates invariably makes her voyages enjoyable.
“It’s a wonderful work environment on an oceanographic research vessel when you have an interdisciplinary group of researchers aboard — wildlife biologists, oceanographers, fisheries biologists, plankton biologists, marine mammologists, and marine chemists. Say you’re up on the ship’s bridge and an oceanographer joins you, and she asks if you’ve seen any seabirds, and you say yes, a big group a couple of miles back. And she gets excited because she’s detecting strong upwelling, and the picture all comes together — the upwelling nutrients are sustaining krill and forage fish, and provide food for the birds and marine mammals in the area. Or you’re in the galley, and everyone is eating and comparing our individual daily notes. These conversations help you frame the research you are working on and see how it fits into the larger context of the marine ecosystem.”
Scientists often view seabirds as indicator species to track changes in the marine environment. The profound environmental evolutions that are affecting Alaska are manifest in the flux of birds and their prey species on the open seas, but Liz notes the changes are also notable when she skirts the coastline.
“One of my first jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in Prince William Sound surveying Kittlitz’s Murrelets, a small seabird that forages in the fjords near tidewater glaciers,” Liz says. “We did a lot of work at Harriman Fjord, and in recent years I’ve been struck by how much and how rapidly some glaciers in this fjord have receded. It’s dramatic. And in the Arctic, I’ve seen coastal erosion after storms — giant sections of frozen tundra undercut by waves falling into the sea
When did you join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
Kathy: I first started as a seasonal wildlife biologist technician in 1978. I worked off and on, and then became permanent in 1997.
Robb: Cumulatively, I have spent 13 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; first seasonal position was 2002, followed by a 4-year term position in 2010, and then a permanent position in 2014.
Liz: I started in Alaska as a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999, and then began working for USFWS in 2001, and became a permanent biologist in 2013.
What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?
Liz: Maybe that they think of the agency’s mission as wholly land-based. In Alaska we also do a great deal of research in coastal and offshore marine environments. Seabirds will typically only come to land for a few weeks out of the year to nest and raise their chicks. They spend the rest of their time at sea.
Kathy: They’d probably be surprised by how much creative and interpretive work is involved. People tend to think of USFWS as a permitting and regulatory agency, but we do a great deal of hands-on field work, including projects involving international effort and cooperation. That’s necessary, of course, due to migratory species — they don’t recognize national boundaries.
Robb: That as a wildlife biologist, 90–95% of my typical work day is NOT spent thinking about biology, but instead reading/responding to emails and managing my inbox.
How do Alaska’s wild places sustain you?
Kathy: Just the fact that I live in one of the world’s most beautiful places is sustaining. I really feel at my best when I’m outside, either at sea or in the wilderness.
Liz: I feel rejuvenated every morning when I step outside or go up to the bridge on a boat. They say Alaska begins 10 minutes from downtown Anchorage, and it’s true. Being surrounded by such a vast expanse of wilderness is an inspiration.
Robb: Wild places connect me to why I am a civil servant working to keep wild places wild.
What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?
Liz: Speaking specifically to seabirds, I’d have to say the changes in the marine environment — especially the pace of these changes, including receding tidewater glaciers and the decline in annual sea ice thickness and extent. Sea ice triggers spring blooms of algae forming the base of the marine food web. When the sea ice declines, marine productivity can decline along with it. I’m also concerned about the potential impacts of increased vessel traffic in the Arctic that is accompanying the decline in sea ice and how those changes can potentially impact the marine resources in the region.
Kathy: The impacts of climate change. It’s affecting ecosystems everywhere, but we’re feeling it at multiple levels here, and at such a rapid pace we notice year-by-year changes. Wildlife adapts over geologic time. In Alaska, wild species have been able to adapt to extended periods of glaciation and de-glaciation. But they’ve never had to adapt to anything like we’re currently seeing in such a compressed time scale.
Robb: My foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources is that management goals and objectives sometimes seem to have little regard for what future generations of Alaskans will inherit.
When I’m not at work, I’m…
Robb: I am biking with my wife Leah, and dog Otto, on the awesome trails and pedestrian boulevards around and throughout Anchorage.
Kathy: Outside, and probably birding.
Liz: I’m outdoors, just doing as much as I can and enjoying Alaska — running, biking and gardening in my backyard. Being a marine biologist sometimes gives the impression that you’re always outside, but so much of what we do is behind a desk and in front of a computer. I have to get out whenever possible to remind myself why we do this work.
What’s the greatest misconception visitors have about Alaska?
Robb: Perhaps that you can “see it all” in one trip. I’d say it takes at least three trips to Alaska and even that is only the tip of the iceberg (which you should try to see during your first trip).
Kathy: They expect to see wildlife in spectacular concentrations, doing exciting things all the time. As anyone who has spent any time in the wilderness knows, you typically have to devote many hours to being outside, being quiet, watching and waiting, to see anything at all. Also, people are often surprised by how intensely green it is here during the spring and summer.
Liz: They often misunderstand the scale of the state, and how Alaska’s various regions differ so dramatically. In Southeast Alaska you have old-growth forests, while the interior is a mix of spruce, birch and tundra, and the Aleutians don’t have any trees at all. Alaska is vast and extremely diverse ecologically.
What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska or your job?
Liz: There are so many — including just being at sea. A special moment was my first time in the Bering Strait. I had a family member tell me about the time they spent stationed in this region years ago on the Russian side of the border. I was touched to think about his experience and having the opportunity to see this unique part of the world for myself. When I was there in May the Bering Strait was packed with sea ice surrounding Big and Little Diomede Islands located in the middle of the Bering Strait. The ice was impassable even for the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker that we were on.
Robb: Sharing our “own island” for six summers in the western Aleutians with my life partner, Leah.
Kathy: A touchstone experience for me was working on Naked Island in Prince William Sound. It’s this spectacular, tidal-influenced wilderness. Your days revolve around the tide come in and out, and feeling the entire island breathe as a single organism.
What advice would you give people who want to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
Kathy: Contact the people working in a field that interests you, and be flexible in terms of what you’re willing to do.
Liz: It’s like my mentor, Guy Baldassarre, said to me: take opportunities as they come. You never know what you might learn, or where it will take you. Just engage, and see where things lead.
Robb: There are a lot of options for career paths at the world’s premier conservation organization. I would tell people to (i) think long and hard about what gets you excited or you find rewarding about wild places, fish and wildlife, then (ii) seek out a career that will result helping save some of that for future generations to enjoy.
What wildlife species particularly inspires you?
Robb: Seabirds and marine mammals. I am inspired by how seabirds and marine mammals make a living wandering the ocean, which on its surface looks barren and can be unforgiving.
Kathy: The Laysan Albatross. It nests in Hawaii, and then soars all the way across the Pacific to Alaska to feed. I’m always excited when I see one.
Liz: Well, I’m biased, so I’d have to say seabirds in general. They’re out there making a living on the open ocean, and it isn’t easy. We have three species of albatross in Alaskan waters, and I’m so impressed by the distances they travel. And fork-tailed storm petrels are these tiny gray birds that use the air currents in cresting seas to dance over the waves. When you’re watching a storm-petrel fly near the surface of the water, sometimes it looks like it’s going to be knocked out of the air by a massive wave, and at the last moment it just casually flits over the top of the wave crest with seemingly little effort at all. Whether they’re large birds like the albatrosses or tiny ones like the storm petrels, they all use the resources of the ocean, each in its own way, to survive.
How and why did you come to Alaska?
Kathy: I spent most of my childhood at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California, where my dad worked as a chemist. It’s in the Mojave Desert, and I loved it — there were so many places to roam and explore. But then I took my undergraduate degree at California State Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo on California’s Central Coast, and I was fascinated by the ocean. It seemed exotic to me, and I made my first positive seabird identification there — a Pigeon Guillemot. After graduation, I took a job in the Fisheries Division of the Fish and Wildlife Service, sampling streams and lakes. I went back to school and completed my Master’s Degree from the University of California at Irvine with research focused on Pigeon Guillemots at Naked Island in Prince William Sound. I ended up living on the Kenai Peninsula. I did some private consulting, fished commercially with my husband, we had our son, and then the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill happened in Prince William Sound, and I conducted damage assessment and recovery studies for Fish and Wildlife. I got my PhD at the University of Victoria in British Columbia based on that work, and I’ve been working for the agency ever since.
Robb: I was raised in Spokane, but my love for the outdoors grew out of visits to my grandfather’s cabin on Priest Lake in northern Idaho. I took my undergraduate degree at The Evergreen State College in Washington, where I fell in with a bunch of birders from the East Coast. Birding became both a passion and a gateway to my career. After college, I had a variety of bird-related jobs. I worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Northern California surveying Marbled Murrelets and Spotted Owls, Peregrine Falcons at Vandenberg Air Force Base for the UC Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, then finally came to Alaska in 2001 to survey Spectacled Eiders and other seaducks for a private consultant who had a contract in Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. After that I studied ovenbirds in shaded coffee plantations in Jamaica, went back to Alaska to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife surveying Common Murres, Thick-billed Murres and Red-faced Cormorants at the Alaska Peninsula Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, studied Loggerhead Shrikes on San Clemente Island off the California coast, and then returned to the Alaska Peninsula to work for USFWS again. I spent six summers surveying seabirds and Evermann’s Rock Ptarmigan on Agattu and Attu Islands in the Aleutians, work that also was the basis for my Master’s Degree from Kansas State University. I worked seasonal and term positions for USFWS through that period until I was hired permanently in 2014.
Liz: I grew up on a small dairy farm in upstate New York. It was a wonderful place to be free to explore the woods and creeks, catch frogs and watch birds— it all instilled a love of nature that carried through to my undergraduate work at the University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. When I was a junior in college I got my first job in Alaska working on a summer waterfowl project on the North Slope for the U.S. Geological Survey. I spent three months on a remote island in the Arctic called Flaxman Island in the Beaufort Sea researching and banding long-tailed ducks and eiders, and I just loved it. I learned a lot on the biology side, and I also learned how to live and work with people in a remote field camp setting. I went back to the Lower 48, got my degree, and then returned to work at Flaxman Island again for USGS the following summer, followed by a wading bird foraging ecology project in Cape Canaveral in Florida. Then in 2001 I got a call from Kathy to come back up to Alaska for a seasonal summer position surveying Kittlitz’s Murrelets in Prince William Sound. The temporary seasonal position with USFWS evolved over time — and I never went back. I’ve been here ever since.
Story by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Alaska Digital Media Manager.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.